“They’re talking about things of which they don’t have the slightest understanding, anyway. It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.” So said K in The Trial, Kafka’s chilling tale of a faceless authority that turns a man’s life upside-down without him knowing why.
The book sprang to mind after I bumped into my old mate Dinah, who looked as though she’d been through some sort of trial herself. It was a lovely balmy afternoon, the sort we don’t get enough of, but she looked as if a chill wind had caught her. She was returning from an appointment at her local job centre, which she had been forced to attend after her employment and support allowance, or ESA, had been suddenly stopped. She was now deemed “fit for work” and had just been to see what they call a ‘Work Coach’.
“The whole thing is an absolute farce,” she spluttered, taking a deep drag of her roll up. “I wish I could just walk away from it all, but I can’t. Complete frigging nightmare.”
ESA replaces the old sickness or incapacity benefit that was paid to people who were unable to work due to long term illness or disability. In Dinah’s case, she is a 62-year-old former alcoholic who successfully conquered the drink only to be diagnosed last year with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that causes painful inflammation in the joints. There is no cure and treatment consists of pain killers and steroid medication.
Up until now Dinah’s benefits related to the treatment and support she’d been receiving as a recovering alcoholic. Her big mistake had been to report, when prompted, her new diagnosis to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). In June she was called to undergo a ‘Work Capability Assessment’ to decide whether she was still entitled to receive ESA.
“Despite my diagnosis, I scored zero points and now have to look for work. Apart from anything else, who is going to want to employ me at my age? A few years ago I would have been drawing my pension until those bastards shifted the date by five years!”
Dinah received the unwelcome news in a phone call one Saturday morning last month. “My ESA was stopped there and then and I was told to sign on and apply for job seeker’s allowance, just like that.” Educated to degree level with a successful career in management behind her, Dinah is a pretty tough cookie and immediately launched an appeal against the decision. But in the meantime, she must go through the motions of signing on for work.
“The assessor has produced a report that is full of in accuracies, largely because she has misinterpreted what I told her or assumed certain things and jumped to conclusions,” she fumed. “What my doctor says is irrelevant. This test in effect redefines the whole meaning of illness in order to end or reduce people’s benefits.”
She showed me the 12-page document, which in stilted and poorly written English explains why Dinah was now suddenly deemed fit for work. “This woman, apparently a doctor, asked me a lot of questions and told me to do a lot of things like bend down, lift your arms up. There was very little eye contact but a lot of tap-tap-tapping on her computer. Once, when I tried to talk to her she raised her hand up in a stop sign telling me to wait. I left there feeling completely drained and went straight home to my bed. ”
From what I could gather from a quick read through, being able to do things like walk 200 metres, whether unaided or on crutches, or use a computer keyboard “with at least one hand”, and having basic cognitive skills like an awareness of everyday dangers and the ability to “learn how to do new tasks”, means you are not so ill or disabled you cannot do some form of work. Nowhere does it take into account the debilitating affects of chronic illness, the good and the bad days or the need for powerful medication to control symptoms.
Her appointment with the work coach was just as dispiriting: “He just would not look at me and whenever I questioned anything, he kept saying, ‘it’s the law’,” she exclaimed. “I handed him a sick note from my doctor but he completely ignored it and asked me if I had a CV. He’s got to act hard and cold to do the job properly. It’s horrible.”
According to the coach that day, the appeal she had lodged wasn’t in his computer file and Dinah was advised to phone the benefits office to check what had happened to it. “It took me half an hour to get through only to discover that my appeal had been received the previous day.
“It seems they want to mess people about as much as possible.”
For now, she must do what the job centre tells her on pain of being sanctioned, that is lose all her benefits. She also will receive no money until her job seeker’s allowance is processed, leaving her in a vulnerable position financially. “I’ve got no idea how long it will take to get sorted,” she said, throwing her cigarette butt into a drain. “The stress has been tremendous and I’m already in rent arrears.”
But she’s also feeling angry against a system that treats the sick and the poor so unjustly. There have been numerous independent reviews over the years of ESA and work capability assessments, all of them critical and calling for change – for example, the need for medical information to be properly considered as part of the decision-making process. As a result of interventions by organisations like Citizens Advice and the Child Poverty Action Group limited reforms have been made, but the set-up remains fundamentally the same, complete with the Orwellian type language that goes with it. For a start, the word sick appears to have been outlawed. The old sickness benefit is now the aforementioned employment and support allowance, while a sick note has become a ‘get fit note’.
For now Dinah must await the outcome of her appeal – or ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ as the DWP calls it – and visit her work coach when required, which as far as she knows is once a week, though it could be more. “Expecting someone like me to work is madness,” she said. “The physical demands now being made on me to find this work is also pointless. It will just end up make me feel more ill and then I’ll probably miss an appointment and be sanctioned. All for what – so the government can save themselves a few pounds?”
The sooner we get rid of this nasty little government the better, I thought as I watched her walk slowly down the road to catch the bus. What Dinah had told me was yet another litany of woe that includes those who have fallen victim to the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and job centre sanctions – examples of authority run amok as once described by the prophetic Mr Kafka.